Jason Isbell delivered one of the strongest records in 2013, and in doing so, he helped redefine the parameters of Americana.
Above: Publicity photo for Southeastern (2013)
Though he probably felt some sting at the time, Jason Isbell’s departure from Drive-By Truckers in 2007 is inarguably the best thing that happened to the Alabama native. Post-Truckers, he’s written consistently high watermark songs that have established him as one of the best voices in American music and not just a third voice in one of the best bands in American music.
During his tenure with that act he was the bridge between Mike Cooley’s carefully refined and highly poignant material and Patterson Hood’s stream-of-gut narratives, visceral yarns that called to mind the Southern literary tradition that birthed Flannery O’ Connor and William Faulkner and snaked its way through music such that it made room for the winding, hypnotic verses of Yankees such as Bob Dylan.
Isbell drew characters that praised the Tennessee Valley Authority (“T.V.A.”), the same organization that broke men Cooley sang about (“Uncle Frank”). Whereas some would have painted the sentimental in broad strokes, he opted for a pointillist route, not unlike the more subtle and interesting writers emerging from Nashville in the ‘70s and ‘80s. His ability to recognize the wisdom of tradition and marry it with humor frequently resulted in heartbreakingly beautiful material (“Outfit”, from his 2003 debut with the Truckers, Decoration Day). Other times, he married the urban and the rural, not unlike the soul music made in the region of Alabama where he was raised (“Goddamn Lonely Love” from The Dirty South).
It’s those elements that remain most characteristic of his work and which populate his brilliant 2013 release Southeastern. No one can accuse Isbell of taking the easy route there, though. His 2007 debut, Sirens of the Ditch, was at times louder and angrier than one might have expected (“Brand New Kind of Actress”, “Try”) but also saw Isbell delivering songs that any writer of any time would be happy to have in their quiver: the breakup bawler “In A Razor Town” and “Dress Blues” (written about a young man from Isbell’s hometown who was killed in the war in Iraq.